Innocent killing in Afghanistan
US-LED troops in Afghanistan have been accused of digging bullets out of the dead bodies of three Afghan women in an attempted cover-up of a bungled raid they conducted in a village earlier this year.
After initially denying responsibility for the deaths, NATO commanders have now confirmed that their troops killed two pregnant women and another female villager in the botched raid on February 12.
NATO at first suggested that the women - one of them a pregnant mother of 10 and another a pregnant mother of six - had died by some other means hours before the raid.
In a statement released yesterday Melbourne time, the US-led military command in Kabul said investigators had concluded the women were ''accidentally killed'' as a result of joint forces firing at two armed men, who also died. ''We deeply regret the outcome of this operation,'' said NATO spokesman Brigadier General Eric Tremblay.
In a potentially scandalous turn, The Times in London has reported findings by Afghan investigators that US forces not only killed the women but ''dug bullets out of their victims' bodies in the bloody aftermath'' and then ''washed the wounds with alcohol before lying to their superiors about what happened''.
Other signs of evidence tampering had also been found at the house, a NATO official said in an interview with The New York Times. ''There was evidence of … walls being washed, bullets dug out of holes in the wall,'' the official said.
He added that investigators ''couldn't find bullets from the wounds in the body''.
The official said the Afghan-led team had alerted NATO military chiefs - including General Stanley McChrystal, the American commander in Afghanistan - to the findings on evidence tampering in late March.
The disclosures could not come at a worse time for the US military, as it struggles to contain fallout from a series of tirades against the foreign military presence by Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who has also railed against the killing of civilians by Western forces.
General McChrystal has tried hard, and with some success, to reduce civilian casualties through new rules that include restricting night raids and bringing Special Operations forces under tighter control.
But botched Special Operations attacks - which are blamed for a large proportion of the civilian deaths caused by NATO forces - continue to infuriate Afghans and create support for the Taliban.
Before yesterday, NATO military officials had already admitted killing two innocent civilians - a district prosecutor and local police chief - during the February 12 raid on a home near Gardez in south-east Afghanistan. The two men were shot when they came out of their home, armed with Kalashnikov rifles, to investigate.
In its statement yesterday, the American-led military command in Kabul admitted that ''international forces'' were responsible for the deaths of the women as well.
Officials have previously stated that American Special Operations forces and Afghan forces conducted the operation.
The statement said ''investigators could not conclusively determine how or when the women died, due to lack of forensic evidence,'' but that they had nonetheless ''concluded that the women were accidentally killed as a result of the joint force firing at the men''.
''We deeply regret the outcome of this operation, accept responsibility for our actions that night, and know that this loss will be felt forever by the families,'' said Brigadier Tremblay. ''The force went to the compound based on reliable information in search of a Taliban insurgent and believed that the two men posed a threat to their personal safety.
''We now understand that the men killed were only trying to protect their families.''
The admission was an abrupt about-face. In a statement soon after the raid, NATO had claimed that its raiding party had stumbled upon the ''bodies of three women who had been tied up, gagged and killed'' and hidden in a room in the house.
Military officials had also said later that the bodies showed signs of puncture and slashing wounds from a knife, and that the women appeared to have been killed several hours before the raid.
Survivors of the raid called that explanation a cover-up and insisted from the outset that American forces killed the women. Relatives and family friends of those killed said the raid followed a party in honour of the birth of a grandson of the owner of the house.
A spokesman for the Afghan Interior Ministry, Zemary Bashary, said he did not have any information about the Afghan-led investigation, which he said remained unfinished.